Review: Stars shine in Memphis Symphony Orchestra program

The Memphis Symphony Orchestra reached for the stars over the weekend.

At the Cannon Performing Arts Center on Saturday night and the Germantown Performing Arts Centre on Sunday afternoon, the Masterworks program — being repeated Tuesday at 7:30 p.m. in a free concert at The Magnet at Soulsville — mixed the popular orchestral suite “The Planets” by Gustav Holst with John Williams’ popcorn pleaser “Star Wars Suite” from a series of films you may know.

The freshest piece of the concert, however, was the less-well-known “Starburst,” a 2010 work by rising composer Jonathan Leshnoff. It’s inspired by the light and energy of stars, pulsating with restless intensity but never so remote that it doesn’t have an anthropomorphic angle.

While the “Star Wars” saga is a galaxy-sized western, creator George Lucas wanted familiarity from the score. Williams provided that, eschewing the old sci-fi theremin, with influences from Holst, Stravinsky and William Walton.

But it’s purely cinematic — and predictable — through and through. It’s easy to imagine the Imperial March backing a Leni Riefenstahl Nazi film loaded with Roman gladiatorial touches and probably a few flying monkeys thrown in. It’s also a cousin to “Mars, The Bringer of War” by Holst.

“Yoda’s Theme,” meanwhile, has a weirdly Christmassy feel with harps and soaring strings — the Jedi elf as Santa Claus.

The MSO, under the baton of music director Mei-Ann Chen, performed with gusto, even if the score was more slick sentiment than great music. But the orchestra was clearly having a good time and passing that along to the audience.

The even bigger program of the evening was “The Planets,” which was inspired more by astrological than astronomical principles. Holst drew with a broad brush — “Mars, The Bringer of War” was dark and full of foreboding. Something that Darth Vader could dance to.

“Mars” has appeared on several film soundtracks as has “Jupiter, The Bringer of Jollity.” “Jupiter’s” contribution is of hope and sumptuousness, soaring with hymnic agreeability — perfect for scenes of uplift and grandeur.

“Venus, The Bringer of Peace” was more a bringer of schmaltz, but I suppose a seven-course meal needs something sugary. “Mercury, The Winged Messenger” presaged Tinkerbell and “Saturn, The Bringer of Old Age” was a march of doom and will never be the theme for AARP.

Fortunately, the piece ends with “Neptune, The Mystic,” which is indeed swirly and beguiling. It fades out with voices, provided by the women of the Memphis Symphony Chorus, and that constituted one of the most perfectly realized moments of the concert. Big works can always end with “ffff” blastimisso, but you’ve got to love it when the composer finishes off the piece with breathtaking quiet.

The singers were offstage, as Holst instructed, and the effect of the orchestra, and then the voices, fading to nothing, was terrific.

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